Name: Ben Stoviak
County of Residence: Allegheny
Preferred Pronouns: He/They
How do you describe your identity? Queer, gay, male-bodied; I like to think of myself as a lover above these things, though, and like to remind people that I’m many more things than this—I’m a teacher, professional, creative, son, brother, adventurer, and friend.
Please describe your coming out experience. Where did you find support? What challenges did you face? If you ask a LGBTQ person about their “coming out experience,” I think most of them will tell you honestly that the experience is lifelong. Just yesterday, while on a date with an extremely handsome and by no means closeted man, I was approached by a walkabout flower peddler who asked us both if we had special ladies in our lives, and when we said, laughing, that we definitely didn’t, he asked if we had more than one. Coming out is a lifelong pursuit of maintaining self-identity, self-value, pride, political relevance, and, unfortunately, safety. “How long before I start coming out to my coworkers?”
In my case, usually quickly or immediately as the opportunity presents itself. I had four sexual partners in college and two boyfriends before I came out to anybody. My first boyfriend and I were both closeted; at the time, he was a senior and I was a freshman. Perhaps three of his closest friends knew we were dating, but it didn’t last very long and I never wanted, at that age and with so little experience, for my sexual identity to be framed outside of the milieu of “love.” My sophomore year of college, a then trans-identifying 7-11 clerk who I’d often buy coffee from while working next door, one day suddenly and flirtatiously invited me to a Rainbow Alliance meeting, the LGBTQIA student organization at the University of Pittsburgh. I went, though nervously, because at the time, and since I had first seen him on the sidewalk walking towards me my freshman year, I had an at-first-sight and deep crush on the group’s president. When he, after some amount of work done by my friend, invited me on a date and the dates continued, I felt ready, like, “this guy makes me proud to identify as queer. This man is beautiful, is somebody I can and probably do love, and could never be ashamed to.” I first came out to my roommates inadvertently when he had spent the night, and being progressive, young, and sex-positive friends, they were delighted that it turned out I was getting laid.
Next, I came out to my grandmother, then sister, and finally my parents after they cornered me because they couldn’t believe that I was single and romantically disinterested (I had a cheerleader girlfriend in high school! How could I be doing so poorly in the dating and sex worlds?!). It was a painful experience because, then, I had begun to assemble a chosen family of strong, politically aligned LGBTQ friends and peers. My father accused me of choosing my own sexuality to spite him, and my mother said that my sexuality was “hard for her” to accept. I offered them literature, but ultimately we didn’t talk much over the following year. I declined to attend their Christmas celebration, and it wasn’t until much of that time passed, and my mother was diagnosed with cancer, that we began to show each other that we value family, loyalty, and love beyond what differences we could or could not appreciate in each other.
How would you describe yourself NOW in terms of “being out”? I still have to come out. Constantly. To new friends, coworkers, and even to strangers. I do so because I’m proud of my experiences, because other people don’t have the bravery that I do, and because now, I realize that the love I’ve had and will continue to find are more valuable to me and important than any of the obstacles, hatred, or ignorance that I will meet. I am out and come out as a lifelong pursuit of teaching and informing other people, and also because, let’s be honest, it feels really gross when your Uber driver asks you to sexually comment on a female passerby.
Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life? I grew up in a very white, very middle/upper-middle class suburb of Pittsburgh in the 90s. Back then, before things like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” Project existed, people in schools and in communities like mine didn’t talk about LGBT people–I knew that they existed from television, from shows like Roseanne and home decorating programs, but even the teachers at my school who students suspected were LGBT were closeted, at least at work. I think the first time, outside of tv channels, that I met somebody who openly identified as gay was in high school, and there were maybe two people in my school of 2,000 students who identified as non-heterosexual. I grew up learning that, to be a gay man, for example, one had to have some combination of a speech impediment or pronounced speech pattern characteristic or stereotypical of gay men, enjoy artistic pursuits like musical theatre or interior design, probably own a tiny dog, actively color his hair, be attracted to men, and never talk about being attracted to men. I figured, for years, “well, I’ve got the last two things going on in my head, but I’m an honors sciences student–2/5 is by no means a great way to choose an identity statistically.
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character or creator in television, film or literature? Please tell us why. As I explained earlier, like many of my peers, I grew up with virtually no education about LGBTQ people outside of what I could glean from the tv in my family’s basement. My sophomore year of high school, in AP Latin, we took a short break in our lessons to study ancient Greek and read a fragment by the famously lesbian poet Sappho. I’ll never forget that moment. Reading that poem, I thought, “this is what I feel about my own crush!,” which was, at the time, the blond-haired cellist who shared a music stand with me in the orchestra. “I’m not alone! I could actually be a gay person because it turns out that, actually, I don’t need to be a home decorator who wears too many fashion accessories! I can just be a person in love who loves language like this woman.” I was writing poems at the time, and later chose, in AP English, to study the poetry of another queer woman writer, HD. Today, I have a half-sleeve of tattoos dedicated to the erotic, romantic, and ambivalent symbols of both of them, as well as Oscar Wilde and Catullus, reminding me that love is out there, worth seeking and experiencing regardless of its pain or difficulty, and that I will always be in great company.
How do you stay informed about LGBTQ issues? I’m an active social media user and consumer of online news and editorial. I watch CNN with my coffee in the morning and click through The Huffington Post and Advocate from my desk.
Describe your geographical community. We’re a proud, caring, powerful, and progressive city.
Describe your local or regional LGBTQ community. I’ve always considered Pittsburgh to have an inclusive, protective, and powerfully political LGBTQ community. For example, even though Pennsylvania does not protect people from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression or sexual identity, the City of Pittsburgh does. Locally, I think we are in great shape and continuing to make progress in protecting our citizens, but outside of the city and county, there is a lot more work to be done.
I think we’re lucky here also to have several passionate and successful groups of people making changes, rallying, and standing up for the people who live here and elsewhere. I love my community and am proud to be a queer Pittsburgher.
Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your identity? Specifically, in a job setting, when applying for housing or while in public. I can’t imagine meeting an openly or even perceived LGBTQ person who hasn’t been harassed or discriminated against for their actual or perceived identity at some point. I’ve been verbally harassed online and in public because of my sexual identity I’ve been physically assaulted on a sidewalk. I’ve had had inappropriate jokes made in my direction at former workplaces. We all have our stories about the times these things happened.
Are there issues impacting your LGBTQ neighbors that aren’t visible or part of the local dialogue? In my personal experience, LGBTQ people here are very active in discussing our rights, but I’ve encountered a lack of education and knowledge about public sexual health issues such as HIV and STD transmission and risk, as well as the benefits and deficiencies of use of PrEP for disease transmission.
What would you like to see elected officials do to improve life for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? The rights and protections that exist for residents of the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County must be extended to the state level.
Please share a lived experience, anecdote or fact about life as an LGBTQ person in your community. I have been assaulted because of my sexual identity, and I am not alone. I am not alone because people who would not even consider me to be a friend, or a person they like much, came to support me and the violence that I experienced. I am not alone because I’ve been in the rallies on behalf of other people who experienced violence because of their sexual or gender identities. I am not alone because I know that these things continue to happen every day and believe that LGBTQ Pittsburghers will stand up for each other, and I will join them.
Beyond discrimination, what other barriers create challenges for your LGBTQ neighbors? I fear that young (elementary, middle, high school aged) people and people in rural and suburban communities still do not receive access to the resources, education, support, and encouragement necessary to thrive early and with pride in their adult live, especially in educational settings.
What LGBTQ friendly resources are available for your neighbors? I volunteer or have been involved with a number of important local resources and organizations over the years that I suggest to people constantly in order to connect with, seek out help for, or learn more about themselves or members of the LGBTQ community: Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force, Gay and Lesbian Community Center, Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, Persad Center, Center for Victims, PFLAG, Steel City Sports, ReelQ: Pittsburgh Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
What is your greatest fear for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? Again, lack access to resources, education, and support
What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? Western Pennsylvania GLBTQ people have a responsibility for ensuring that we, as a community, feel supported and safe, and that we continue to extend the security and safety–both emotionally and politically–to our neighbors at the state, federal, and international levels.
What can allies do to support your LGBTQ community? ASK AND LISTEN
How can gay men and lesbians support the bisexual, transgender and queer members of our community? ASK AND LISTEN
What motivated you to take part in this project? Our continued storytelling and visibility will serve to help others of us feel less alone, less afraid, and more likely to seek out the help, successes, loves, and livelihoods that we all deserve.
Finally, what question should I have asked? Please also share your answer. I noted that a lack of resources and education about LGBTQ people in school settings is potentially damaging to the development of both the people who identify as LGBTQ and the people who meet them. I would like to have been asked what we can do to prevent this. I think that more public school districts need to take an active interest in exploring and sharing the histories, nuance, and reality of LGBTQ Americans and their experience in classrooms, in professional development trainings, and with assurance at the administrative level that the voices of these people–our people–will be heard, lent, and not silenced.
Read the entire AMPLIFY LGBTQ Q&A archive.
AMPLIFY LGBTQ is a series of blog posts designed to give a “signal boost” to the voices of our LGBTQ neighbors throughout Western Pennsylvania. We are using a Q&A format and will minimize editing their responses.
Our intent is to highlight the voices of marginalized members of our community who are not always invited to the table or whose voices are not heard. These are glimpses in to the lived experiences of LGBTQ people in Western Pennsylvania as told in their own voices. If you would like to participate, please email me pghlesbian at gmail or visit the online Q&A.